What does the Episcopal Church feel like to a person with a mental illness?

Part of the mission of the Episcopal Mental Illness Network is to find ways to bring people with mental illnesses into the full life of the church. This means understanding their perspectives and perceptions as church members.

The following is one woman’s account of finding the Episcopal Church a place of healing as well as a place of rejection as she struggles with her mental illness.

EMIN: Tell me in general about your experience with formalized religion as a person with a mental illness.
A: I was raised in a conservative evangelical denomination, not Episcopal, that interpreted my strange thoughts and behaviors as some sort of demonic possession. It was frightening and shameful. No one expressed the possibility of my having a chemical imbalance. They just thought I was bad, and I absorbed that judgment, too.
Later, as an adult, I joined the Episcopal Church and continued to turn to religion for a solution to my problem. I latched onto the idea of “confession.” If I could just confess my sins, if I could just be sorry enough, I could be purified and get better. The priest I sought three times for private confessions simply could not relate to my level of pain. Although she was a highly educated woman, she was not trained to recognize a mental illness.
Years later, when I was finally properly diagnosed and got on a treatment plan, my symptoms became manageable. Now that I was “cleaned up,” I could go to God’s house and be embraced. I did and I was.
But, as you can probably tell, my level of social trust is as conditional as the love I received when I was “unlovely.” I still don’t go to church when I’m exhibiting symptoms, although that is the time when I most need support.
EMIN: How is it to be a person with a mental illness in the Episcopal Church?
A: The good definitely outweigh the bad, so let’s swallow the bitter pill first.
People in the Episcopal Church are generally more “upper crust” and have a narrower definition of what “acceptable behavior” looks like. Many churches have pretty tight social codes of conduct.
It’s not like in some African American churches or churches in Latin America that I’ve attended where you have more latitude as to what is acceptable. On the other hand, it’s also been my experience that the Episcopal Church is generally more liberal and open-minded than other mainstream religions. They’ve been on the forefront of acceptance movements for racial, gender, and sexual equality.
But, frankly, I have to say that, if you have a mental illness, it is a lot easier to find acceptance in a bar than in a church—even a church as loving and open as the Episcopal Church. There’s a lot more wiggle room as far as how you can behave and still be accepted, and I find that really sad. In a bar, flamboyance is cool, misery is common, and everyone has a story to share.
EMIN: Sounds like you are a bit dubious about how helpful church can be to persons with mental illnesses.
A: I guess it depends on the church.
I think the Episcopal Church has a deep approach to spirituality and I appreciate that. There is more privacy and reverence in faith matters. Silence and waiting on the Lord are encouraged.
I had many years of symptoms prior to diagnosis so “watching and waiting with expectation” was an excellent concept to have embraced!
Doubting is seen more as an opportunity for exploration than as a faith failure. The people I’ve known well in the Episcopal Church don’t wear their piety on their sleeves but their faith seems to resonate through their bones.
The quiet and meditative depth and predictability of the service is appreciated by someone with an over-stimulated nervous system.
EMIN: What advice do you have for people in the Episcopal Church about how to help bring people into the total life of the church?
A: To the clergy, first I have to say, God love ’em-they have a tough job. But the clergy absolutely cannot, intentionally or unintentionally, turn their backs on people with mental illnesses because they don’t know what to do.
As part of your continuing education, ask to interview some mature mental illness survivors. Ask them how their symptoms exhibit in the various phases—emerging, moderate, and critical. Ask what they want done and said in each stage. Collect an inventory from as many participants as you can about what is most helpful and most offensive. Learn how to sneak in concerned caring without making the person feel like a freak.
To people in the congregation, as I said before, just because someone has a good game face, don’t assume that all is okay.
If you suspect something might be going on with someone you go to church with, don’t politely tiptoe around them. Distancing only exacerbates the shame most of us have absorbed from culture of silence that surrounds mental illness. Ask open-ended questions. “What do you like to do? Can I come along?” You might be surprised at what emerges if you don’t probe too obviously.
EMIN: Overall, how do you feel about the Episcopal Church in terms of ministering to persons with mental illnesses?
A: I’m proud of the Episcopal Church for its strong voice on social and political issues. Jesus came to set us free. That’s comforting to me because, in my experience, there is no more isolating prison than mental illness.
Maybe the next frontier of the Church will be truly freeing people of the stigma of mental illness. What a lovely legacy that would be!